Marshall McLuhan & Emerson on Technological Extensions


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)

“All media are extensions of some human faculty- psychic or physical.”
– Marshall McLuhan. The Medium is the Massage (1967), p 26

I’m not aware of McLuhan having been influenced by Emerson in his idea of of media as technological extensions, but it’s possible and deserves investigation. I know that McLuhan was influenced by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall in this regard. See the correspondence of McLuhan and Hall at …..AlexK

Transcendental Works and Days: The Theory of This Particular Wednesday

November 29th, 2011

I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.

My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.

Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.

technology as extensions to ourselves Technology as extensions to ourselves

Technology as extensions of ourselves

4 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan & Emerson on Technological Extensions”

  1. Dear media ecologists

    Alex Kuskis on his blog McLuhan Galaxy today entitled
    Marshall McLuhan & Emerson on Technological Extensions

    credits Ralph Aldo Emerson with the idea that tools are extensions of the body. The actual quote appears on where one reads:

    In Take Today (1972) and, the concept of ‘extension’ is credited to American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and dated 1870. To Emerson, ‘The human body is the magazine of inventions, the patent-office, where are the models from which every hint was taken. All the tools and engines on earth are only extensions of its limbs and senses’ (TT 86).

    By the way I recommend having a look at – it is an excellent Web site

    I was following up on the notion of extension’s of man that might have originated with Emerson when I found the following quote:

    A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. And he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind.
    Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887), Business

    I also am aware of Thoreau’s: But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

    I wonder if McLuhan a man of letters ever read these passages

    kind regards – Bob Logan

    • Correction – no Bob, I don’t credit Emerson with having originated that idea at all. For one thing, I am re-publishing a portion of someone else’s blog entry that makes a connection between Emerson’s idea of technological extensions and McLuhan’s similar idea. I think it more likely that McLuhan might have got the idea from Edward T. Hall, with whom he corresponded and which as been documented. See . However, prodigiously educated and well-read in literature as he was, McLuhan was certainly aware of Emerson’s writing, as well as Thoreau’s. There are 2 references to the former in the Letters, p. 5 which simply mentions that he read Emerson and p. 49, where in a 1935 letter from Cambridge to his parents, he mentions being shocked at Emerson describing Macaulay’s voice as being “English par excellence”. As for Thoreau, he writes in a letter to Hugo McPherson (June 12, 1970) that, “Living by a pond in Wychwood Park has led me to take a closer look at [Henry David] Thoreau’s Walden [1854]. Have in mind to write a Walden III”
      (Letters, pp. 408-409). Of course Walden II had been published by B.F.
      Skinner in 1948.

      A Walden III from McLuhan would have been most intriguing. I wonder if McLuhan would have been interested in transcendentalism and how that would have aligned with his Catholic faith. Does anyone have any ideas?……….Alex Kuskis

  2. 3 SRM

    Emerson’s “Works and Days” (published in Society and Solitude in 1870) is cited in two footnotes in chapter 3 of Laws of Media–indicating that Emerson referred to tools as extensions of the body two generations before Hall (#7). I don’t know if that footnote is original to MM or added by EM or an editor?

    Footnote 9 cites a later portion from the same essay, where Emerson remarks on the dangers of tools.

    • Yes, thanks for reminding me of that. It might very well have been added by Eric McLuhan who completed a far from finished work. Often documentation like footnotes and references are added at the end of an academic work, not during the writing of the text. I’ll ask Eric when I have time and will let you know. Thanks…..AlexK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: